Indian cricket captain Virat Kohli, who is currently on a World Cup campaign in England, was fined ₹500 by the Gurgaon municipal corporation after one of his domestic helps was found washing his car with piped drinking water. The amount in itself is inconsequential, but its symbolic value is stark when juxtaposed with poor women running after a water tanker in a desperate bid to collect a precious trickle as the vehicle ambles along, as seen in Phulambri, a Marathwada town in Maharashtra. Most residents of Marathwada rely on tanker water, earning this arid belt the moniker “Tankerwada". While water deprivation is especially acute here, it afflicts large parts of India with varying degrees of severity. Some parts of Karnataka, for example, shut schools for an extra week on account of water scarcity. Incidents of violence over water have been reported from across the country. In Madhya Pradesh, which has had several such clashes, the state government asked superintendents of police of all 52 districts to guard water sources. This is unprecedented. It also portends a future of worsening strife over what many of us take for granted.
An asymmetry taken from a 2018 NITI Aayog report puts the scale of the crisis in perspective: India has only 4% of the planet’s fresh-water for 16% of its population. This sets the country up for exploitation by water-tanker operators who profit by digging borewells, often illegally and under political patronage, to sell water at scandalous prices to the needy. The phenomenon is so rampant that the pace of groundwater extraction invariably outstrips the rate of aqueous recharge. If the rains play truant, the depletion of reservoirs accelerates. According to the NITI Aayog report, India is the world’s biggest groundwater extractor. As things stand, it forecasts that 21 cities, including Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai and Hyderabad, will run out of groundwater by 2020; also, 40% of our citizens will have no access to drinking water by 2030. As many as 600 million people are already estimated to face “high-to-extreme" water stress every year. This crisis had been in the making for decades, with ecologists who warned of development myopia brushed aside in favour of concrete signs of economic success. All manner of structures have encroached upon lakes and rivers with impunity, while industrial waste and sewage inflows render various water bodies toxic. The problem is compounded by the large-scale adoption of thermocol and plastic plates and glasses even in the countryside, the stuff of non-biodegradable waste that ends up killing rural pools of water that have traditionally served entire villages.
Groundwater levels, meanwhile, have fallen calamitously. In the farm sector, blame has long been assigned to the practice of flood irrigation and switchovers to water-soaking crops such as sugarcane and rice, but water theft by tanker gangs does much of the harm. Given how dear this vital fluid is becoming to the masses, the Narendra Modi government’s aim of assuring every citizen piped water by 2024 is indeed laudable. For that goal to be met, however, far more challenges need to be overcome than can be listed here. Agriculture would need to conserve water through drip irrigation and other methods. Groundwater replenishment will have to be done in mission mode. Rainwater harvesting must turn voluminous. For now, perhaps tanker gangs could be put out of business by state water supplies.